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10 December 2010, Gateway House

Letters from Budapest – Europe’s Jewish moment & Israel’s as well

Six decades after World War II, Europe is trying to recover from the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. Memorials by famous sculptors and artists are coming up all over the continent.


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For a people Hitler and his allies tried their best to annihilate, the Jews have staged a remarkable comeback in Europe. A decimated community – from around 10 million before the Second World War to less than 2 million now across this continent – has taken centre stage in the lives of Europeans once again.

How did Europe get this way – from murdering millions of Jews to almost celebrating their contributions and their presence? Was it just to come to terms with an anti-Semitic past and try to inoculate itself against a possible recurrence of hate in future?

After all the centuries during which it persecuted the Jews, Europe is finally recognizing how integral the Jews were to the Continent – and not a people apart, as they were made to feel through a millennium and more.  If one can give a date to the moment it should be Willy Brandt’s ‘silent kneel’ forty years ago on the 7th of December 1970 at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This was an astonishing act of contrition which to some degree lifted the guilt the Germans felt for the terrible things they had done to the Jews. Thirty years later, on December 6th 2000 the square where Brandt knelt was named after him. In the dedication ceremony the then Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroder, voiced what many Germans felt:

Here a German political leader, the head of government representing the Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany, had the sympathy and the courage to express something that words, no matter how carefully phrased, were unable to: we committed crimes and we confess to these crimes… This image of Willy Brandt kneeling has become a symbol…. A symbol of accepting the past and of understanding it as an obligation for reconciliation. As an obligation for a common future. Like so many Germans and Poles I will never forget this image. It has come to be a reminder and a political credo for entire generations.

Since Willy Brandt’s gesture in December 1970, not only Germany but Europe itself has come a very long way. Across Europe, memorials for Jews murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers are coming up and some of the most famous sculptors and artists have been engaged to create them. The city where I live has a few too. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, intentionally bleak, was conceptualized by the American architect, Peter Eisenman. It comprises hundreds of outsized grey, coffin-like concrete structures of varying sizes placed above the ground, stretching, seemingly endlessly, across 200,000 square feet of open space.

But Europe’s efforts go beyond putting up memorials.

I recently attended a talk by a young Polish academic, Michal Bilewicz, titled ‘The Ideological Model of Scapegoating and an Explanation of Anti Semitic Prejudice in Poland.’ It was a very dry and factual lecture and its flat delivery brought out the sterile horror of a past that Europe through its many memorials for holocaust victims is attempting to etch on its psyche. It was following this event that I began to wonder: if Warsaw University, to which Michal Bilewicz belonged, should have a Centre for Jewish Studies, were there others in Europe? I was aware of one in the Central European University in Budapest where I am a Visiting Fellow.

But a Google search astounded me – the number at last count was close to 500. Germany with 106 is the undisputed champion followed by the UK with 87. Several European countries have institutions offering Jewish studies including one each in tiny Malta and economically shocked-out-of-its-wits Latvia. A visit to the website of the European Association in Jewish Studies –  – will be most instructive as also to from where I found the extracts of Gerhard Schroder’s speech quoted above.

Of course there is nothing that Europeans – not just the Germans – can do to atone for such terrible crimes against the Jews. Several countries carry varying degrees of guilt – the French and the Hungarians included.  I am made aware of the unbelievable horror that visited the Jews of Hungary every time I enter my apartment complex at the foot of the Buda Hills – named after the saviour of thousands of Jews.  Its construction was funded by the family of Raoul Wallenberg, the wealthy Swedish diplomat who served in Budapest towards the last days of the Second World War, saved thousands of Jews and then disappeared, presumed killed by the Soviets who took him prisoner in 1945. Reading his despatches from Budapest one gets an idea of the enormity of his endeavour to save Hungarian Jews from certain death, through negotiation, threats, and bluff to get his way with unrepentant anti-Semites and the Germans, ever-willing to kill. He saved thousands – but sadly half a million Hungarian Jews nevertheless met their end in Auschwitz.

While Europe is trying its best to make sense of the madness, contrast it with what Israel is doing now. Today Israel is a relatively big country – larger by the lands it has acquired and much bigger population-wise through migration from Eastern Europe especially the former USSR. For long now it is also the local bully in the Middle East, something so many right-thinking Israelis are ashamed of and have been raising their voices against. Few in Israel would  have had the courage or the conviction  to articulate this as forthrightly as the late Baruch Kimmerling did some years ago  in his brilliant and essay ‘The Two Catastrophes’[1] and this necessarily lengthy quote is from that.

‘…Actually, the story of the place I live is an allegory of what happened in this entire land before I emigrated to it. Between 700,000 and 800,000 Arabs were uprooted from close to 400 Arab settlements. Most of these settlements were wiped off the face of the earth. A few were resettled by Jewish immigrants and their names Hebraicized…

This ethnic cleansing that was carried out in 1948 should be seen in its historical context, which means that the Jewish perspective must be taken into account. It is inarguable that the results of the war were a great catastrophe for Palestinian society and caused indescribable human suffering for generations, suffering that continues today. But it is necessary to recognize that these results were not predestined. There was a reasonable possibility at that point in time that the Jewish immigrant-settler society would collapse and be destroyed. Both sides regarded the situation as a zero-sum war following which only one of the two communities would survive politically. That at least was the subjective and honest feeling among the Jews, who had just begun to absorb the results of the Holocaust and its meaning. The possibility of another Holocaust in Palestine terrified the Jews, and their military doctrine and activities stood in the shadow of this trauma.

The connection between the Jewish Holocaust and the Arab catastrophe exists also in Palestinian historiography, but the context and its meaning is different. The Palestinian complaint on this is familiar and clear. Not Muslims or Arabs but the Christian West, Europeans and Americans, perpetrated a terrible crime against the Jewish people. Some carried out the extermination; others closed their eyes and did nothing to prevent it. After they committed their crimes against the Jews, they washed their hands of responsibility and made the Arab-Oriental people pay the price by helping to dispossess them of their land, thus compounding one crime with another. It is no wonder, therefore, that many Palestinians and other Arabs feel deep resentment towards the West — resentment perhaps especially strong among the most “Westernized” of the Arabs.

Kimmerling goes on to state that the Palestinians don’t expect Israel to ask for their forgiveness, just an acknowledgement of the truth would be enough he suggests. Perhaps Israel could do with a bit of humility and learn from today’s Europe.

Europeans have done terrible things in the past – and in a small way are still continuing to push against the miserable and helpless community of Romas. But Israel has a lot to learn from the way Europe has worked on its attitude towards the Jews. Now that no holocaust threatens it, will Israel repent and turn a new leaf in its relations with its neighbours?

[1] Kimmerling refers to a very moving statement by the eminent Israeli educationist and philosopher Yehuda Elkana on the ‘Need to forget’. Those who wish to read this can access it  at…/victims_elkana.pdf

Dr. Uday Balakrishnan, is a Visiting Fellow at the Central European University in Budapest.

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